In the garden of The Manor House, Jack’s country estate in Hertfordshire, Miss Prism is trying to interest Cecily in her German lesson. Cecily would prefer to water the flowers, but Miss Prism reminds Cecily that Jack encourages Cecily to improve herself in every way. Cecily expresses some slight irritation with the fact that her Uncle Jack is so serious, and Miss Prism reminds her of his constant concern over his troublesome brother Ernest. Cecily, who has begun writing in her diary, says she wishes Jack would allow Ernest to visit them sometime. She suggests that she and Miss Prism might positively influence him, but Miss Prism doesn’t approve of the notion of trying to turn “bad people into good people.” She tells Cecily to put away her diary and to rely on her memory instead. Cecily points out that memory is usually inaccurate and also responsible for excessively long, three-volume novels. Miss Prism tells her not to criticize those long novels, as she once wrote one herself.
Dr. Chasuble, the local vicar, enters. Cecily tells Dr. Chasuble teasingly that Miss Prism has a headache and should take a walk with him, obviously aware of an unspoken attraction between Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism. Miss Prism reproaches Cecily gently for fibbing, but she decides to take Cecily’s advice, and she and Dr. Chasuble go off together. The butler, Merriman, then enters and announces to Cecily that Mr. Ernest Worthing has just driven over from the station with his luggage. Merriman presents Cecily with a visiting card, which is the one Algernon took from Jack in Act I.
The visiting Mr. Ernest Worthing is actually Algernon, masquerading as Jack’s nonexistent brother, who enters dressed to the nines and greets Cecily as his “little cousin.” When Cecily tells him Jack won’t be back until Monday, Algernon pretends surprise and disappointment. Cecily tells Algernon that Jack has gone to town to buy Ernest some traveling clothes, as he plans on sending him to Australia as a last resort. Algernon proposes another plan: he thinks Cecily should reform him. Cecily says she doesn’t have time. Algernon decides to reform himself that afternoon, adding that he is hungry, and he and Cecily flirt with each other as they head into the house to find sustenance.
Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble return from their walk, also flirting mildly. They are surprised when Jack enters from the back of the garden dressed in full Victorian mourning regalia. Jack greets Miss Prism with an air of tragedy and explains he has returned earlier than expected owing to the death of Ernest. Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble express surprise, shock, and condolences, and Miss Prism makes a few moralistic pronouncements.
Jack’s story matches the one he and Algernon cooked up the previous evening: that Ernest passed away in Paris from a “severe chill.” Dr. Chasuble suggests that he might mention the sad news in next Sunday’s service and begins talking about his upcoming sermon. Jack remembers the problem of Gwendolen and his name, and he asks Dr. Chasuble about the possibility of being christened Ernest. They make arrangements for a ceremony that afternoon. As Dr. Chasuble prepares to leave, Cecily emerges from the house with the news that “Uncle Jack’s brother” has turned up and is in the dining room.
From the beginning of The Importance of Being Earnest, books, fiction, and writing have played an important role in furthering our heroes’ own fictions and deceptions. The writing in Jack’s cigarette case exposes his secret identity, leading Algernon to develop suspicions about his other life. That life itself is a fiction to the extent that Jack has always lied to Algernon about what it entails. Jack has also been spinning fiction for the benefit of his friends and family in the country, where everyone believes him to be a paragon of virtue, his brow permanently creased with anxiety and woe. The all-important “three-volume novel” in the dour Miss Prism’s past suggests that Miss Prism herself has had an alter ego at some point, or at least the capacity for telling stories of her own. Miss Prism tells Cecily not to “speak slightingly of” fiction and gives a definition of it: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.” Even before this exchange, Cecily avoids her schoolbooks. She would rather write than read and pulls out her diary, where she records her “wonderful secrets.” We might assume that these are themselves fictions of a sort. Cecily’s schooling is part of Miss Prism and Jack’s desire for Cecily to “improve [herself] in every way,” a sentiment that reeks of Victorian righteousness and solemnity, and Cecily foregoes this attempt to pursue her own writing.
The moral status of Jack’s fictional brother Ernest has undergone a change between Acts I and II. At Algernon’s flat in Half Moon Street, Algernon called Ernest merely “profligate.” Jack explained that Ernest got into “scrapes,” or mischief. In the garden of the Manor House, where Miss Prism’s moral viewpoint holds sway, Jack’s brother graduates to “unfortunate,” which Miss Prism uses as a euphemism for “immoral,” “bad,” and downright “wicked,” the latter an adjective Cecily seems particularly to relish. Indeed, when the descriptions of Ernest reach this low point, he becomes all the more appealing to Cecily. The idea of wickedness fascinates Cecily, and she yearns to meet a “really wicked” person. This open interest in the idea of immorality is part of Cecily’s charm and what makes her a suitable love interest for Algernon. Cecily is no dandy: she doesn’t speak in epigrams and paradoxes, and, in fact, she’s the only character who doesn’t talk like a character in The Importance of Being Earnest. She’s a moral eccentric. She hopes Jack’s brother hasn’t been “pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time,” since that would be hypocrisy.
The difference between hypocrisy and mere fiction, or “Bunburying,” begins to emerge when Jack enters and declares that Ernest is dead. He is dressed in full Victorian mourning regalia, a very elaborate affair, creating the play’s most pungent visual gag. Jack has gone overboard in carrying out the deception of his double life, and his behavior highlights the essential difference between hypocrisy and “Bunburying.” Algernon imposes on Cecily by pretending to be someone he’s not, but he is still less malicious than Jack. First, Algernon scarcely knows Cecily, and second, he isn’t actually leading a double life. Algernon has created a fictional friend, but he does not actually pretend to be that friend. When he finally does take on a second identity, it is in the company of near-strangers. Jack, however, not only lies to the people closest to him, but he lies elaborately, becoming, for all his amiability, a lowlife. Jack has a fundamental charmlessness to his attitude toward other people. In a theater production, his deception is compounded: the audience watches an actor pretending to be someone pretending. Jack’s pretense seems almost never-ending.
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